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Weekend edition—North Korea’s countdown, Tesla lifespan, smart ocean

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North Korea warned in April that it would give the US until year’s end to be “more flexible” in denuclearization talks. Since then it’s continued with the warning, including recently when high-ranking official Kim Yong Chol said that ignoring the deadline “would be a mistake.”
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North Korea warned in April that it would give the US until year’s end to be “more flexible” in denuclearization talks. Since then it’s continued with the warning, including recently when high-ranking official Kim Yong Chol said that ignoring the deadline “would be a mistake.”

Yet one key US diplomat seemed unaware of it. David R. Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said at a recent event in Tokyo, “I don’t remember a time being set,” while admitting that he was “not completely up to speed on that particular aspect.” He added that the North Koreans often “bluff” and said they should “not set artificial deadlines.”

The answer received swift criticism from North Korea experts. Vipin Narang, a professor of security studies at MIT, tweeted this week that Stilwell “will come ‘up to speed’ when Kim launches an ICBM to ring in the new year,” referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

North Korea’s threats about what might happen after the deadline have been vague. But historical patterns are worth paying attention to. Kim Jong Un tends to set the nation’s course during his New Year’s speech, now less than 60 days away.

Last month, state media showed Kim riding a white horse on Mount Paektu (the ruling family’s supposed spiritual home), noting that the officials who accompanied him were “convinced that there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again.”

Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, told Reuters that Kim’s alpine trip was “a statement, symbolic of defiance,” adding that “the pursuit of sanctions relief is over. Nothing is made explicit here, but it starts to set new expectations about the coming course of policy for 2020.”

In January 2017, Kim said in his New Year’s speech that North Korea was close to testing an ICBM. Three ICBM launches followed, including one 11 months later that appeared to put all of the US within range.

The Kim regime has indeed been known to bluff. But the importance of the year-end deadline, and the New Year’s address, is real. —Steve Mollman

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FIVE THINGS ON QUARTZ WE ESPECIALLY LIKED

The million-mile question. A fleet of seven Teslas has been driven more than 3.5 million miles. Tesloop, a shuttle service turned car rental, is testing the limits of what electric cars are capable of doing, and redefining the economics of vehicles in the process. Michael J. Coren explores how the small California company may pave the way for a generation of EVs that become the most economical future for corporate fleets.

Women under glass. Safety, fashion, and demeanor are three of the reasons Japanese employers in industries ranging from travel to beauty to retail cite for the same basic rule: No glasses are to be worn by female employees. Many women in Japan, writes Isabella Steger, are taking to social media to express their discontent with such arcane restrictions on their looks.

Falling wide of the mark. The three vehicles currently being built for NASA to fly astronauts into space have something in common: problems with their parachutes. From Boeing forgetting to connect its parachute cords to SpaceX’s last-minute redesign of its descent system, the big challenges in space travel, Tim Fernholz shows, aren’t related to rocket engines but instead involve understanding the physics of the soft structures that gently carry astronauts back to Earth.

Bad wrap. Despite decades of messaging, likely only about 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled. On top of that, industry output is expected to triple by 2050, driven in part by the glut of fracked natural gas in the US. Zoë Schlanger details (Quartz member exclusive) how single-use plastics came to dominate our lives, why the recycling system is broken, and why consumers are not to blame.

Thomas and the alleged cover-up. All was not well on the island of Sodor, Max de Haldevang reports playfully about an accounting scandal at Mattel. Thomas the Tank Engine and friends had found an error in the toymaker’s accounts. “We have to restate our earnings,” puffed Edward. The Fat Controller thought he had a better idea: “We’ll count the money in a different way and pretend the mistake never happened!”

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FIVE THINGS ELSEWHERE THAT MADE US SMARTER

Cold calculations. Iceland offers many benefits when it comes to bitcoin mining, among them cheap geothermal energy and frigid air to keep machines from overheating. It’s also a remarkably safe country, which means security costs can be kept low—or so it initially seemed to the international miners who flocked there. For Vanity Fair, Mark Seal writes about a charismatic group of local thieves that emerged to pillage the data centers, led by a mysterious “Mr. X.”

A step toward the singularity? Some companies are starting to test microchip implantation in employees, Oscar Schwartz reports in the Guardian, raising serious questions about worker autonomy, privacy, surveillance—and humanity itself. The issue no longer seems to be whether man and machine will merge, but rather when and how, and what we’ll both gain and give up in the process. What transpires with microchipping may hold clues.

Wave of interest. Marine scientists often complain about the paltry funding available for ocean exploration, especially compared to the astronomical sums spent on space missions. But as Michael Roberts writes for Outside Magazine, a growing number of companies are developing technologies—including “smart” buoys and remotely operated vehicles—that make tracking sea conditions and observing marine life vastly cheaper. Many of the ventures are backed by Silicon Valley elites keen on spurring radical solutions to ocean problems.

Unfulfilling fulfillment. Amazon is known for its efficiency, but it’s a “company full of people, with all their inefficiencies,” writes Anna Wiener for the New Yorker. On a tour, she finds one of its fulfillment centers to be a dystopian mix of humanity and automation, where the disparate desires of consumers are speedily executed by people and robots, in an environment that feels “endless and oddly desolate,” suffused with anonymity.

Secret scores. You might check your credit rating from, say, Equifax now and then, but you’ve probably been assessed in other ways, too, by companies you’ve never heard of. As Kashmir Hill explains in the New York Times, specialist firms provide scores on consumers to companies like Airbnb and OkCupid. You can obtain some of these evaluations, but be ready: Seeing the ways you’ve been tracked over the years can be unsettling.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, parachute diagrams, and Thomas the Tank Engine stories to hi@qz.com. Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was brought to you by Steve Mollman and Holly Ojalvo.

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